Lana'i residents on edge after Murdock signals possible sale

KHON Dec, 13, 2011

When a former employee who became one of David H. Murdock’s most avid supporters sat down with the billionaire owner of Lana'i in July, she created quite a stir among residents when she wrote Murdock was contemplating selling the island if opposition to a wind energy project continued. Alberta de Jetley, the publisher of Lana'i Today, quoted Murdock, 88, as saying, “I have three choices: I can stay and sustain the animosity; I can sell off parts of the island, although it may not be easy to do; or, I can close it all down and leave.” “It was very, very disheartening to hear all this from him,” de Jetley told Khon2. “I really felt that emotionally he was at the end of it.” Murdock secured 98 percent ownership of Lana'i in 1985 when he gained control of Castle and Cooke in 1985, the parent company of Dole Food. The real estate mogul and philanthropist proceeded to transform the island’s economy from one based on the cultivation of pineapple to tourism. Murdock built the Manele Bay Hotel, The Lodge at Ko'ele as well as several affordable housing projects for Lana'i’s 3,100 residents. However published reports say Murdock is losing anywhere from $20 to $40 million a year on his Lana'i investments. The exact number is unknown since Castle and Cooke rarely discusses its financials. A proposed 200 to 400 mega watt wind energy project estimated to cost $750 million could help stem or even reverse Murdock’s loses, but has been met with stiff opposition by a vocal contingent of Lana'i residents. The project would transfer wind energy to Oahu through an undersea cable but still faces many hurdles. Among them, an environmental impact statement and a power purchasing agreement that requires approval by the Public Utilities Commission. Outrage over Castle and Cooke’s plan to build a minimum of 67 wind turbines on 5,500 acres of land in the northwest corner of the island has largely been led by Friends of Lana'i. The group says the turbines, which would stand over 400 feet tall, would permanently scar the island’s landscape and damage the ecosystem. “We have families that don't even talk about this any more because one person in the family's for it and one person is against it,” said Robin Kaye, a Friends of Lana'i member and spokesperson. Those who oppose ‘big wind’ believe Murdock is bluffing about possibly selling Lana'i in order to push the project through. But if the billionaire is serious, those who count themselves among the opposition are less fearful of what new ownership could bring. “It's very possible that the next ownership could have much more creative ideas than Murdock has,” said Kaye. “I think it's terribly unfair to blame the opposition to his project as the reason he wants to get out of here.” Last month a group of state lawmakers visited Moloka'i and Lana'i on a listening tour to hear what residents thought about large scale wind energy projects on both islands. State Sen. Mike Gabbard was impressed by how the proposed Castle and Cooke wind project on Lana'i had divided the community. “The tension was palpable,” said Gabbard. “You could feel the heaviness in there when this thing about Mr. Murdock selling the island (came up).” With 600 or more people on Lana'i employed directly by Murdock, de Jetley is fearful of what Murdock’s departure could bring. “We already know what Mr. Murdock is like, who knows what a new owner is going to want to do,” she said. “The anti-Murdocks cannot tell me where the jobs are going to come from.”